Stolen Lives

When Tahira Scott moved in with her cousin, she was looking forward to saving money and establishing a good credit history to buy a home of her own. Instead, her plans were ruined before they began. The 31-year-old leasing consultant from Wilmington, Delaware, was 20 when she became a victim of identity theft at the hands of the person she least suspected — her cousin.

There were some warning signs, says Scott. “We started getting bills in someone else’s name.” Then two employees from a car dealership came to Scott’s job to see if the person who had tried to purchase a vehicle in her name was actually her. Although she was a little suspicious, Scott says she had no idea about her cousin’s misdeeds. “I just thought it was a mistake,” she says.

After a year, the two women parted ways amicably, but Scott says her cousin began avoiding her. Another relative informed Scott that her cousin had stolen others’ identities and that she, too, may have been victimized. Scott delayed checking her credit report, afraid of the possible damage, but subsequently contacted the police and her credit card companies. She learned that two car loans and a cell phone account had been opened in her name. “The cell phone bill was several hundred dollars,” says Scott. Even worse, the car loans totaled thousands of dollars.

According to a Federal Trade Commission survey, some 30 million people have fallen victim to identity theft in the past seven years. This crime is quickly becoming an epidemic because it’s relatively easy to get hold of other people’s personal information, says Johnny May, an independent security consultant and author of Johnny May’s Guide to Preventing Identity Theft: How Criminals Steal Your Personal Information, How to Prevent it, and What to Do if You Become a Victim (Security Resources Unlimited L.L.C.; $14.95).

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name, Social Security number, date of birth, or other personal information to commit fraud. Like a thief in the night, these crooks are lurking, watching, and waiting to make off with your valuable information. Fortunately for Scott, the car dealership employees realized she was a victim of identity theft after their visit to her job and the bills were traced to her cousin.

BLACK ENTERPRISE has outlined some ways you can spot identity theft, what to do if it happens to you, and how to guard against it in the future.

Victims have little reason to be suspicious until they are notified by a creditor or the police. And aside from the financial damage it can cause, being victimized is often mentally and emotionally traumatic. “I felt betrayed and violated,” says Scott. “I had no idea. I trusted her, and you don’t want to believe that your family member would do that. It was overwhelming and distressing. I would have written her a check or money order or anything. She was the last person I thought would do that.”

People of all ages can be victimized, says Diane Terry,